Keeping Sproles will be tough for Chargers

The San Diego Chargers have an interesting offseason approaching concerning their backfield. San Diego has one of the deepest and most versatile running back trios in the NFL, but it may be difficult to keep the group intact.

Let’s take a look at how it breaks down:

Ryan Mathews: He is not going anywhere. Mathews had an injury plagued rookie season. When healthy, Mathews, 23, has shown signs of becoming a good player. He averaged 4.3 yards a carry and scored seven times.

His lack of durability was the knock on him before the Chargers moved up 16 spots to take him with the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft. Mathews, who also struggled at times with ball security as a rookie, is going to have to prove he can endure the physical stress of an NFL season. If he can, he should become a good player. He runs hard and finds the hole quickly.

Mike Tolbert: This is where it gets interesting. Tolbert is expected to be a restricted free agent. I fully expect the Chargers to put the high tender on him, which would require teams to give up a first and third-round pick to sign Tolbert. That would essentially ensure that Tolbert, 25, would remain in San Diego in 2011.

There have been preliminary contract talks between Tolbert and the Chargers, but they are not close to a new deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolbert does get a long-term deal at some point this year. The Chargers love him. He is versatile, he can run, he’s a great goal-line player, he can catch the ball, he can block, and he is becoming a leader. Tolbert has gone from being an undrafted free agent to a critical part of the No. 1 ranked offense in two years. The Chargers drool at the thought of having Mathews and Tolbert both healthy for a full season in 2011.

Darren Sproles: This free agent is a luxury player. Because Mathews and Tolbert are a big part of the Chargers’ plans, I could see a situation where Sproles is allowed to leave in free agency. The Chargers almost allowed Sproles to leave during the previous season, but at the 11th hour, San Diego decided to give him the high tender.

Sproles, who’ll be 28 in June, was paid nearly a total of $14 million by San Diego over the past two seasons. With other needs and the emergence of the other two backs, I don’t see Sproles getting nearly the amount of money he has received the past two seasons. If Sproles is allowed to test the market, he may get a better deal elsewhere. Sproles had a career high 59 catches in 2010 and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 50 rushing attempts. He is also a strong returner. If he leaves, an element of San Diego’s offense and special teams would be missing. But because San Diego is otherwise strong on offense, and the fact that it has several free agents, Sproles could be expendable.